David Saint: Dusting off art history

This is a year of celebration for the National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies. You may think it sounds extremely worthy, exclusive and perhaps even a bit boring. So perhaps its shortened version, NADFAS, sounds more appealing!

NADFAS is an arts education charity, founded in 1968 which through lectures, study days, visits, volunteering activities and grant giving, encourages the appreciation of our great artistic heritage.

An important area of activity is in hands-on work with valuable artefacts. With 6,000 volunteers worldwide, the organisation is at the forefront of major arts and heritage conservation projects and to do this here in Northamptonshire, a valiant band of men and women give up their time.

One group is working in the library at Althorp, dusting and stabilising the books. These, with a few valuable exceptions, had been collected since the sale of the original Spencer library which, at more than 40,000 volumes, was the largest in the kingdom. The collection was sold for £220,000 by ‘The Red Earl’ Spencer in 1892 and now forms the core of the John Rylands Library in Manchester. The New York Public Library was willing to pay £300,000, but fortunately it stayed in Britain.

Elsewhere they have restored books at Lamport Hall, Rockingham Castle and Weston Hall, near Towcester, as well as the amazing Phillip and Mercy Doddridge Collection at Castle Hill United Reformed Church. They have worked in conjunction with the County Records Office on the ‘Doc Marten’ papers and also with the Central Museum on the world famous shoe collection. With the winter coming on, I don’t envy the brave volunteers who act as Church Recorders. This is another important part of the NADFAS brief. No doubt wearing mittens and thick scarves, the team will be studying every detail of some fine church buildings and record what they see. At present they are working at St Mary’s in Rushden.

Recently they’ve been recording in Abington, Kislingbury, Guilsborough and Ashby St Ledgers churches and, most recently, in Ecton where they’ll be presenting the fruits of their labours to the Rector and the Bishop of Brixworth at a special event later this month.

Drawing from the Patricia Fay Memorial Fund, named after the founder of NADFAS, grants are awarded to arts projects for young people. The Northampton School for Boys and Billing Brook School have recently benefitted financially, supplementing the arts facilities at those schools. This year’s grant is helping Weston Favell Primary School.

This year sees NADFAS celebrating its 45th birthday and the 40th anniversary of the volunteering side, with special events nationwide.

So the idea that NADFAS is stuffy couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an exciting, challenging and, most of all, valuable organisation because the owners and custodians of great houses and collections can have keen and experienced volunteers doing what would otherwise cost a small fortune to carry out.

And the members have fun and the county’s heritage is being preserved for future generations.

For details of the Northamptonshire branch see www.northantsnadfas.org.uk